Clean Tech Jobs Spring Up as Investment Pours in and Factories are Transformed

Share this article

Despite economic uncertainty, the biggest global corporations are investing 3-5 percent of annual revenues in clean tech solutions, and they are poised to invest more, according to an Ernst & Young survey.

With such private investment increasing and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s (ARRA) infusion of over $80 billion into the clean tech sector, the road ahead is looking green.

So, where does the clean tech job market stand today?

In 2007, clean tech was responsible for 770,000 U.S. jobs. While that number is still relatively small, the trend is heading in the right direction — the number of clean tech jobs increased by 9.1 percent from 1998 to 2007, at a time when overall U.S. job growth was just 3.7 percent, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. And as federal recovery act funds are invested over the coming year, those numbers will continue to rise.

Across the country, multinational corporations like GE Energy, Sharp, BP and Siemens are investing in developing clean tech sectors, while manufacturing facilities that had closed are being repurposed for clean tech production.

Where Are These Clean Tech Jobs?

In its recently released Clean Tech Job Trends 2009 report, the clean tech research firm Clean Edge identifies the leading regions for clean tech development and jobs right now, particularly in the top five clean tech sectors: solar, biofuels, efficiency, smart grid and wind power.

The top 15 U.S. metro areas: San Francisco; Los Angeles; New York; Boston; Washington, D.C., and Baltimore; Denver, Boulder and Greeley, Colo.; Seattle, Tacoma and Bremerton, Wash.; Portland and Salem, Ore.; Chicago; Sacramento, Calif.; San Diego; Austin and San Marcos, Texas; Phoenix; Detroit and Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Houston.

California is currently the No. 1 job-creating state for wind, solar PV and geothermal, but other states are well situated to take advantage of the growing market.

The states with the greatest potential for clean tech jobs development are Texas, Illinois, Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan and North Carolina, according to a study of patterns of renewable energy demand, manufacturing capability and needed supply chains conducted for the Blue Green Alliance. That should be welcome news for a group of states that includes some of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and for the nation itself, which reached 10.2 percent unemployment in October.

In the Blue Green Alliance report, Building the Clean Energy Assembly Line, the Renewable Energy Policy Project estimates the renewable energy manufacturing job potential of all 50 states at over 850,000 jobs based on standards requiring 25 percent of power to come from renewable energy by 2025.

All five of the leading clean tech sectors are showing strong signs of growth.


The five states with the most potential for solar PV potential manufacturing are California, Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New York, according to the Blue Green Alliance report.

SunPower in San Jose, Calif., is one of the top 10 clean tech employers in the country, with 5,400 employees.

In the Midwest’s industrial belt, some retired plants are being reborn as clean tech operations. The Ford Motor Co. plant in Wixom, Mich., for example, laid off 1,500 employees when it closed in 2007; today the 320-acre facility is becoming a renewable energy business park where Xtreme Power will produce systems for wind and solar, and Clairvoyant Energy will manufacture solar panels.

Multinationals expanding into solar include BP, with 2,200 solar employees, and The Sharp Manufacturing Company of America in Memphis, Tenn., which employs 300 workers producing solar modules.

SCHOTT Solar, part of the German SCHOTT Group, established its Albuquerque, N.M., solar manufacturing plant in 2009 with an investment of over $1 million. It has 300 employees.

“If the market develops the way we hope it does, the facility will quadruple in size,” said James Stein, vice president for government affairs at SCHOTT Solar North America.

It will soon have even more competition: China’s largest solar panel manufacturer, Suntech Power, just announced plans to open its first American plant near Phoenix in 2010, hiring 75 people initially with plans to expand to 200.

Biofuels and Biomaterials

The top five states with potential for biomass manufacturing, according to the Blue Green Alliance study, are Texas, New York, California, Ohio and Oklahoma.

In Ohio, FirstEnergy initially planned to shut down the R.E. Burger Power Plant in Akron rather than spend $380 million to bring it into compliance with new air quality regulations. Instead, the company invested $200 million to convert the plant to burn biomass. The repurposed plant will come on-line in 2013, employing its original 105 workers and creating 200 new jobs.

Technology Review’s latest Top 10 Private Companies to Watch list includes three biofuel companies: Range Fuels, which will open the first U.S. commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgia next year; Qteros, which is building a pilot plant in Chicopee, Mass.; and Mascoma, which will soon open a plant in Kinross, Mich.

Conservation and Efficiency

The recovery act’s $5 billion investment in the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) is projected to create over 100,000 new jobs in manufacturing, distribution and installation of insulation. (Building retrofits create eight times as many jobs per million dollars invested as coal production.)

In Ohio, where a $266.8 million grant from the Department of Energy’s Weatherization Program is retrofitting 32,000 homes, it’s estimated that the program will have created 590 new jobs and retained 487 by March 2012.

Serious Materials in Sunnyvale, Calif., which produces super-insulating windows, purchased two shuttered factories to meet demand for Illinois’ Weatherization Assistance Program.

“We’re small, but … the opportunity now for things like low-income housing weatherization, is staggering. We will grow four times from last year to this year,” said Chuck Wetmore, who headed one of the factories, Kensington Windows in Vandergrift, Pa., and will now run the Serious Materials operation.

In addition, the green building industry will likely create or support 7.9 million jobs over the next four years, according to a report by the U.S. Green Building Council and Booz Allen Hamilton.

Smart Grid

The energy consulting firm KEMA estimates that smart grid development could create 280,000 U.S. jobs by 2012. Those jobs will involve grid monitoring, renewable energy integration, smart meter networking, consumer energy management and, most importantly, digital data management.

Clean Edge found that many high-level information technology executives are already making the move to smart grid companies.

Benefiting from the recovery act’s $3.3 billion Smart Grid Investment Grant Program, smart grid developer Silver Spring Network, based in Redwood City, Calif., is partnering with GE, Florida Power and Light, and Cisco Systems to develop a smart grid network for Miami businesses and residences that will enable the utility to manage power more efficiently. Already in contract with utilities serving 25 percent of the U.S. population, Google-backed Silver Spring currently has approximately 50 job openings listed in business development, customer operations, hardware and software engineering, IT, and other areas.

Another sign of the sector’s growth is the recent creation of the first smart grid and electric infrastructure exchange traded fund by NASDAQ OMX Group, Inc., Clean Edge, Inc. and First Trust Advisors L.P.


In 2008, the U.S. became the world leader in total wind power installed capacity with over 25,000 MW, creating 35,000 new jobs and bringing total employment in the sector to 85,000, according to the Environmental Defense Fund’s Manufacturing Climate Solutions report.

The North Carolina Wind Working Group found that every 100 MW of installed wind power capacity provides 310 full-time manufacturing jobs, 67 contracting and installation jobs, and 9.5 jobs in operation and maintenance. So if the U.S. achieves its 20 percent wind power by 2030 goal, the sector could support 500,000 jobs with three million additional jobs in construction and development.

Accordingly, the Department of Energy plans to invest approximately $118 million in wind energy with $93 million coming from recovery act funds.

The five states with the most potential for wind manufacturing, according to the Blue Green Alliance report are California, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin.

The Spanish company Gamesa, the second largest wind turbine manufacturer in the world, has four facilities in Pennsylvania providing jobs for over 900 employees.

The U.S. ”is where the growth is going to be," said Jim Buddelmeyer, vice president of purchasing for Gamesa. "That’s why Gamesa has a big footprint here and we continue to invest money here."

Despite a lag in sales due to the economy, Danish Vestas Wind Systems is proceeding with a new factory in Brighton, Colo., that will employ 650 workers by 2010, a nacelle (wind turbine housing) factory for 700 workers, an R&D facility with 100 workers, and a wind tower facility in Pueblo, Colo., with 500 workers.

How Do the Salaries Compare?

According to Clean Edge, salaries for solar PV employees average $40,000 for an entry-level solar energy system installer, and $75,100 for a mid-level system integration engineer. In the biofuel sector, a recyclable material collector can earn $38,100 while a boiler operator makes $61,100.

Salaries for smart grid workers range from $46,400 for a network operations center technician to $87,700 for a mid-level hardware design engineer.

In the wind power sector, a mid-level sheet metal worker can make $50,300, and a field service engineer averages $62,400.

A U.S. Senate subcommittee report on green jobs maintains that green jobs pay relatively low wages, and Robert Pollin, professor of economics and founding co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute (PERI) at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, acknowledges that green job salaries average about 20 percent less than similar jobs in the fossil fuels industry.

Comparing salaries side by side is misleading, though, Pollin said: Green investments will create three times as many good jobs — at all salary levels — as the same spending in the fossil fuel industry, and by raising overall employment, green jobs also provide many new opportunities for both the unemployed and the underemployed.

Clean Tech Down the Road

While clean tech is on the ascent, the nation still has a way to go before it fulfills the promise of robust job creation.

“Clean tech job growth is small scale relative to the economy,” said Dean Baker, an economist and co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“ARRA has helped percentage-wise — with green sectors up by 30 to 40 percent from the stimulus — but it’s starting from a very small base. The absolute numbers are low. We’re talking tens of thousands of jobs when millions are out of work.” The national unemployment rate as of October was 10.2 percent.

The recovery act also has yet to have its full impact on the clean tech sector because, while federal money has been committed, most funding has yet to be released.

Pollin explained that the Congressional Budget Office estimated only 2 percent of the investment in renewable energy would occur in 2009; the rest would be spread over the next five years.

That infusion of money will not just stimulate, “it will be transformative, so that after the stimulus runs out, we will have a new system that can last for years,” Pollin said. “Although it may not be the best stimulus for the short-term labor market, the green component of ARRA is a pioneering effort, going way beyond any other environmental investment in this country.”

The recovery act coupled with federal climate legislation could generate approximately $150 billion a year in U.S. clean tech investments over the next decade, resulting in 1.7 million new jobs, according to PERI.

Encouraged by ARRA’s backing, clean tech investment is the No. 1 venture investment sector, with investments in North America, after a slump earlier in the year, totaling $1.1 billion in the third quarter of 2009.


See also:

Michigan Governor Nurtures a Budding Green Economy

GOP Lawmaker a Hero in Passage of New York’s $5B Green Building and Jobs Bill

Michigan’s Tax Credits Lure 4 Advanced Battery Makers, 6,700 Jobs

Universities Start Tailoring Degrees to Green Jobs